Listening to the Crowd, Playing With the Outliers: What My Work as a Wedding DJ Taught Me About Leadership

Shortly after I got married,  I got a gig as a wedding DJ.

When I got that wedding DJ gig, I thought it was just going to be temporary. You know, a thing I could do for a little while until my ship came in and I finally had that great acting gig I had always dreamed about. Drummer for the Blue Man group? Sure. Lead clown for Cirque du Soleil? That’s what I was hoping for. Though I came close a couple of times, things didn’t go the way I’d hoped. And things work themselves out one way or another. Over the course of ten years, I learned to love working as a DJ and master of ceremonies at high end weddings in Toronto. The work taught me a lot about leadership.

A wedding DJ isn’t what you think

When I started out, I thought it would be easy.. I had a bit of a sense of rhythm, and I kind of thought I knew music. But being a wedding DJ wasn’t about knowing music or having a sense of rhythm. It was really about how to play for a crowd, play to a crowd and play with a crowd. As a DJ, I was responsible for creating an experience for people. I had to do this on the fly. For people I didn’t know. On their wedding day. Each gig was a new venue. New crowd. New set of expectations. LOTS of unknowns. And, did I mention, weddings are high pressure events. So. It turned out the work was about leadership. High pressure leadership through uncertainty.

It took a while but I figured it out

The company I worked for provided us DJs with a book. Actually, a book with suggested songs. A book with songs that were pretty much sure thing hits. There was a bit of a formula. At the beginning of my DJ career, I relied on the expertise of the book. Early in the evening back then I would always start with Bob Seger’s ‘Old Time Rock and Roll’ then the old Beatles’ classic, ‘Twist and Shout’ and a bunch of 50’s and 60’s music.  When the party was started slowing down and the older people were disappearing I’d try one last time with something in the vein of The Righteous Brothers’ ‘Unchained Melody’ to bring people onto the dance floor again. If they returned? A bit more of the same, then perhaps something that was a big hit three years previously. Something that was really hot a while back, but people were bound to recognize.

While learning through failure, I always had a way out

When I started, I didn’t listen to top 40 hits. I didn’t know current music. People would request a new song, and I would stare at them blankly, pretend that I knew it, then play it from end to end without listening first. This was sometimes a problem. I ended up playing songs with ‘Spicy’ words or long un-dancible introductions a lot in the early days. Luckily I typically had a ‘sure thing’ from the book ready to go for just such circumstances.

Developing an ear for hits

One night when I was just getting started, a bunch of other DJ’s and I were returning our gear to the company we were worked for. They were talking about Justin Timberlake’s ‘SexyBack’. It had just been released. They were convinced it would be a huge hit. How did they know this? I didn’t have a clue. But, they were right. Eventually, by playing requests for new music, I developed an ear for new hits. What made them sure hits? I still don’t know.

I quickly learned to string songs together with the same beats per minute. Then I worked with pitch. There were other times where I would see how quickly I could switch musical genres and still have a dance floor. Eventually I developed expertise: I learned how to make mixes work such that people would stay on the dance floor no matter what I played.

I learned to listen to the crowd not the music

I was doing 50-plus gigs a year. I never knew what I was in for. There were times when I would work an event that had a large group of people from a specific culture or country. Some days I would play music for a Korean tea ceremony. Other days I might show up and get handed a stack of Bhangra CDs. I couldn’t read the song titles or artist names. The hosts would say: ‘Play these.’  I played and watched. As soon as I put on a song, I could tell if they liked it or not. The feedback from their body language was immediate.

Although I was leading I wasn’t the expert

I just played. I watched and I played. Most times, even if I had never heard the music before, everyone was happy. They knew the music; I didn’t need to. They were the experts on their experience. I learned what to understand the crowd liked. I didn’t need to be the musical expert. Instead, I  was an expert learner, observing and responding to the audiences’ preverbal cues.

While I was developing this ability, I was not fully secure in my leadership. I still clung to that DJ’s ‘book of right answers’. It took me a long time to develop an ear for what worked. It took a long time to figure out how to really string songs together well. I was proud of my DJ expertise. Because of this, there were requests that I just wouldn’t play. Songs, in my mind, that could not work. Frequently guests would request conventional pop songs, I simply didn’t think could cut it. Unless the song they requested was so far away from my cultural knowledge – like a stack of Bhangra CDs – my sense of my DJ expertise would get in the way of being a true leader in facilitating the experience of the party. Guests had to make the ‘right request’. They had to request the normal kind of wedding reception music that I believed would work.

Again I was proven wrong

I remember one night at the Rosewater Supper Club very clearly. I had a pumping dancefloor. Contemporary hits. People were loving it. Someone requested ‘Higher Love’ by Steve Winwood.  That was not the ‘right request’. In my estimation, song is an ugly dog. I figured it would never work and tried to blow it off. Three times I resisted the guy requesting ‘Higher Love’. Then the groom insisted. I had no choice. I played it, holding my nose, with two sure-fire hits loaded up and ready to go so I could recover from the impending dance floor disaster.

I played it

The place went bezerk. Why was it working? The crowd was 10 years younger than me. It wasn’t music from their childhood. It wasn’t an awesome anthem like, ‘Don’t Stop Believing’. This shouldn’t be working! But it did. They kept coming back and requesting more nutty stuff that I had never played before. I played oddball song after oddball song for them.Songs I deemed ‘undancible’. And. People danced. All night long. People loved the evening so much I landed more gigs from it.

Listen to the outliers

‘Higher Love’ was an outlier. It didn’t fit the formula. It shouldn’t have worked. Before that night, when a song seemed like an outlier?  When a song seemed like it didn’t fit the night? I would assert my expertise and edit out the bad requests. After that night? I played all requests no matter how outrageous. I listened to the outliers and my worked improved because of it. Reflecting now, I wonder how many opportunities did I miss by not doing this sooner?

DJ Leadership

People pay a DJ to facilitate an experience. They don’t necessarily trust them, though, perhaps for good reason. Everybody knows the stereotype of the DJ who hides in their booth and doesn’t listen. The one who dominates a party from their place of expertise, rather than facilitating the party that people want by organically reading the crowd.

And I had finally figured out what I was there to do: to make the experience a success. So I would lead. I would manage the flow of the reception, and I would play the songs that were required. I would say the right things for introducing speakers as a master of ceremonies. I would do as I was told. That’s what they’re paying me for: to create the environment that they and their guests wanted. And when it came to the party? I learned to observe and respond, to play with anything, even the outliers I didn’t like personally. If it didn’t work? I could step back to the formula I knew. I could lean on my expertise.  

Being a responsive leader is a lot like being a wedding DJ. It’s a process of recognizing when your expertise is needed. Knowing when it’s time to push the agenda and impose the formula that ‘gets ‘er done’ is one kind of knowing. Knowing when and how to recognize and listen to the wisdom of the group? That’s an entirely different skill set, and it often has spectacular results.  

You can learn this

As a therapist, consultant and coach, I can teach you to do the same. I can teach you to listen to the crowd – not the music. You can learn to develop and ear for what works for you as a leader. You can learn to ‘feel the room’. Most of all, you can learn to have the confidence to play with the outliers, the songs, the people, the data that just doesn’t fit. And that information? It might be powerful. It might be transformative. It might make all the difference. And if it doesn’t work? You still have your expertise to fall back on.

When I did this as a DJ? My work became easier. My life became easier. Letting go of my expertise allowed me to do all this. It allowed me to recognize the brilliance in everyone else.

How do I do this?

Find out tomorrow in my post about:

  • preverbal motors,  
  • personal resistance to the creative process of letting go of expertise, and
  • venturing into the unknown.
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